PARIS — French President Francois Hollande said Tuesday that his country is prepared to take action against those responsible for gassing people in Syria.
“France is ready to punish those who took the heinous decision to gas innocents” in Syria last week, Hollande said at a conference with France’s ambassadors. He did not elaborate.
“I have decided to increase our military support to the National Syrian Coalition,” the main Syrian opposition group in exile, he also said.
France, one of Europe’s biggest military powers, has not specified what preparation it is taking for any possible international action against Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime.
But on Monday Hollande said time is running out for the Syrian regime and airstrikes are a possibility. “Everything will come into play this week,” he told Le Parisien newspaper. “There are several options on the table, ranging from strengthening international sanctions to airstrikes to arming the rebels.
Hollande spoke with President Barack Obama on Sunday and told him France, like Britain, would support him in a targeted military intervention, according to the paper.
In a veiled allusion to difficulties in getting any strong action through the Security Council, Hollande said Tuesday that “international law must evolve with the times. It cannot be a pretext to allow mass massacres to be perpetrated.” He then went on to invoke France’s recognition of “the responsibility to protect civilian populations” that the U.N. General Assembly approved in 2005.
Ultimately, said one French diplomat, the goal of any military action would be to both “dissuade and punish,” change the balance of power on the ground in Syria, and even give Assad more reason to eventually come to the negotiating table. The diplomat spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter and because the president has not publicly announced specific plans.
Hollande said the “most appropriate response” should be made to the Syrian regime once “the main part” of the U.N. mission currently on the ground in Syria to collect evidence from last week’s attack is finished. A senior diplomat said it could take a “few days” but that a military strike could still happen before the opening of the Group of 20 summit in Russia on Sept. 5.
Analyst Francois Heisbourg, of the Foundation for Strategic Research think tank, said Hollande’s speech ultimately meant a military strike is “going to happen, provided that the Americans confirm they are in it.” He said the message from Western powers to Assad in such an attack would be “this is punishment, and should convince him not to do it again” when it comes to use of chemical weapons.
Hollande announced a meeting of his top defense and security officials on Wednesday and he said he will inform the French Parliament quickly. The French president will meet with Ahmad al-Jarba, head of the Syrian National Coalition, on Thursday in Paris.
Meanwhile, Italy insisted on Tuesday that any military strike against Syria for its alleged chemical attack on civilians must be authorized by the UN Security Council.
Briefing Parliament, Foreign Minister Emma Bonino called the chemical attack a “war crime” but said her government wouldn’t support military action without UN Security Council authorization.
She said: “Italy would not actively take in any military action … beyond the context of the Security Council, which for us is and remains the only point of legal reference that cannot be ignored.”
Italy offered both military bases on its territory and its own aircraft for the 2011 NATO campaign in Libya. Bonino didn’t specify how Italy might view base use during any intervention against Syria led by allies.
Later in the day, Premier Enrico Letta laid out Italy’s position in a telephone conversation with British Prime Minister David Cameron, the Italian leader’s office said.
Britain and Italy “agree on the fact that the massive use of chemical weapons in Syria has gone past the point of no return,” Letta’s office said in a statement. Letta told Cameron that Italy considers the attack on Syrian civilians “an unacceptable crime that cannot be tolerated by the international community.”
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